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Italo B.O. gets high-minded

'The Last Kiss' could reach $12 mil

ROME — While buffoonish comics and curvaceous babes once ruled at the Italian box office, more and more lowbrow comedies are taking a dive as local audiences thumb their noses at vacuous mainstream fare and display an unprecedented appetite for quality homegrown films.

Films that in years past would have been confined to an arthouse niche — and barely $1 million gross — are now reaching the $5 million B.O. milestone that indicates a hit.Current sleeper “The Last Kiss” has raised the bar even further, grossing a staggering $10 million to date on its way to as high as $12 million.

Redolent romance

Silvio Soldini’s “Bread and Tulips” was one of the first indicators of the growing Italo taste for something different. The surreal fairy tale comedy about a bored provincial housewife who goes AWOL and finds romance in Venice took local pundits by surprise last spring when it captured the Italian imagination and soared to a $6.5 million cume.

Marco Tullio Giordana’s 1960s-set “The Hundred Steps” followed, and while Mafia dramas often have proved anathema at the box office, “Steps” defied expectations, grossing more than $3 million. Giuseppe Tornatore’s erotic period drama “Malena” also has been a significant hit, with a lusty $5 million gross.

Quality check

“What we’re seeing here are strong signs that quality, and not just easy entertainment, finally is being rewarded in Italian productions,” says Domenico Procacci, who produced “The Last Kiss.”

Last weekend, propelled by ecstatic reviews and the filmmaker’s cult-auteur status, Nanni Moretti’s intimate reflection on loss and bereavement, “The Son’s Room,” opened to stellar B.O., repping a personal best for the director. In the same frame, Ferzan Ozpetek’s melodrama “Ignorant Fairies,” about a recently widowed woman’s discovery of her late husband’s double life with a gay lover, previewed well.

By contrast, the same weekend saw lowbrow comedy “Caruso, Zero in Conduct,” from former national B.O. champion Francesco Nuti, tank with a resounding thud, one of a string of mainstream entries to flop or drastically underperform during the past two years.

“There’s a certain type of mainstream comedy that once had automatic success here but now seems to flop more and more frequently,” Procacci says. “It’s a genre that’s slowly dying, and I have to confess I’m not sorry, because in its place, the market is opening up to strong films that a few years ago would have been largely overlooked.”

Along with Nuti’s “Caruso,” the latest efforts by one-time commercial heavyweights Carlo and Enrico Vanzina have vanished without a trace only a week or two into their runs.

Recent entries from comedy money-spinners such as actor-directors Giorgio Panariello, Massimo Ceccherini, Vincenzo Salemme, Leonardo Pieraccioni and even enduring veteran Carlo Verdone likewise have played below expectations .

The principal exceptions to the trend have been Aldo, Giovanni & Giacomo’s films, including Christmas blockbuster “Ask Me If I’m Happy.” But the trio’s work generally is considered a notch above other commercial contenders, displaying a gift for physical comedy and general verve that appeases critics and public alike.

Many point to the growth of a new generation of moviegoers to explain the shift in attitude, while others point to Italian television, citing its vulgarity and low cultural levelto account for growing taste in quality cinema.

Some observers see the scaling back of production by former industry titan the Cecchi Gori Group as key.

Up until two years ago, CGG churned out six or more facile comedies per year on a massive number of screens, heavily conditioning the local marketplace. As the group’s financial difficulties pushed production onto the back burner, the presence of those comedies has radically diminished, creating space for other genres to creep into the mainstream.

“Italian filmmakers are obtaining success now not only with light comedies, but also with films that look at sociological or historical themes and current events,” says Giampaolo Letta, director of communications for local industry leader Medusa, which financed and distributes “The Last Kiss,” “Malena” and “Ignorant Fairies,” among others.

“These are films that prompt Italians to reflect on our society in a way that national cinema hasn’t often done in recent decades,” he says. “Listening to audiences as they leave theaters discussing the ideas put forward in films by Soldini, Moretti or (Gabriele) Muccino represents a sign of real vitality and a stimulation for our filmmakers.”

Many of the new quality hits hinge on simple facts of life, everyday sentiments or commonplace occurrences. But unlike hordes of auteurs who examined these themes from a remote, numbingly cerebral perspective, the current crop of directors has imbued them with a warmth, generosity and emotional immediacy to which national moviegoers clearly are responding.

A prime example of this is Muccino’s “The Last Kiss,” a melodrama about the thirtysomething generation’s refusal to grow up, and their fiftyish parents’ fear of growing old.

More than a month into its run, the breakout hit continues to inspire op-ed pieces. Letters columns in national newspapers have been crowded with missives from 30-year-olds, some expressing pleasure at the film’s grasp of their anxieties, and others outraged at being tagged as an immature generation obsessed with trivial concerns.

“Italian audiences clearly are tired of local films that are idiotic and poorly made,” says “Ignorant Fairies’ ” Ozpetek. “The public is more demanding now. At the same time, people have become more willing to experiment, to go see quality Italian films with fully developed stories and interesting characters. Before, they would have looked to foreign films for that type of cinema.”

Having recently expanded his role to cover film production and development, Medusa’s Letta says the emerging trend toward quality and more intelligent content in local product already has impacted the kind of projects being submitted by producers, directors and screenwriters.

“Stories that previously would have been configured as niche films now are being structured for greater commercial impact with an attempt to develop more universal themes,” Letta explains. “Filmmakers are realizing that it’s possible to make successful, audience-pleasing films from marginal but involving stories.”

But the optimistic outlook of some industryites is not shared by everyone. Announcing national production figures for the year 2000, Fulvio Lucisano, president of Italian producers association Anica, recently called the annual results “the worst we’ve ever seen,” lamenting the drop in Italian market share from 24% to 17% and the decline in the number of films produced from 108 in 1999 to 103 last year.

The numbers don’t frighten “Last Kiss’s” Procacci.

“All this panic every time the annual production quota drops is senseless,” Procacci offers. “We have a market that’s clearly unable to absorb as many as 100 films per year, so maybe we should be making less films and concentrating on quality, not quantity. There are much stronger industries than ours that make half that number.

“It’s wrong to keep moaning about an industry crisis when there are so many positive signs,” he adds. “If the Italian market share was down last year, it’s because a series of commercial comedies flopped. But in their place, more intelligent films are gradually being embraced. It’s a process of change that’s not yet complete, but it’s a process that’s definitely under way.”

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